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Danny Johnson, of Johnson’s Orchard, felt like he lost an older brother when Thomas Owen Phillips died of cancer on Nov. 15.
Phillips, who went by his middle name, started working at Johnson’s Orchard in the mid-1940s. It was initially a summer job for Phillips, who was still in his teens at the time. Johnson was just a boy. Phillips continued to work at Johnson’s from that time forward until a short time before his death, nearly 70 years later. Originally it was part-time work and Phillips worked at other places. Then, from the early ‘60s on, he was a full-time employee.
Not only did Johnson see him as a big brother, he saw Phillips as his right hand in the orchard. One of Phillips’ many valuable characteristics was his tremendous memory. He could always remember where he put something, even if a few years had passed.
“If he had his hands on it, he knew where it was,” Johnson commented.
Another valuable skill was Phillips’ ability to handle tractors.
“He was one of the best equipment operators you could have,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, a tractor was almost like an extension of Phillips’ body. He could sense when something was wrong with the tractor. His intuition about farm equipment was virtually infallible.
Johnson recalls a time when he got a new sprayer. They were debating whether to spread the wheels farther apart. Johnson felt that they didn’t need to do that. Phillips disagreed but went ahead and took it out to work in the orchard. Phillips turned out to be right because the sprayer ended up flipping over. Fortunately, no damage was done and Johnson spread the wheels farther apart, just as Phillips had suggested.
Come harvest time, Phillips’ managerial skills were put to use. At one time, Johnson’s both grew and packed apples. Danny would run the packing house. His wife, Nancy, supervised the orchards. Phillips managed the 25 workers who did the actual picking, moving the workers to the locations where they were needed.
“He knew where we had to pick and what we had to pick,” Johnson said.
Initially he shipped directly to supermarkets, with most of his harvest going to Kroger. Later, supermarkets began demanding that all apples be a uniform size.
“It was either have access to a million bushels of apples or sell to another packer,” Johnson said.
He sold to another packer. He recalls many nights when he stood with a flashlight while Phillips used a tractor to load bins of apples, sometimes stacked three high, on a trailer.
Johnson and Phillips spent the winters working together pruning trees. Johnson said that, at one time, he had 7,000 apple trees.
“We constantly went over those in winter time,” he said.
Johnson also valued Phillips’ construction skills, Johnson bought Thaxton Market in the ‘60s,
“Me and Owen spent the winters there knocking walls out,” he said.
Later, in the late ‘80s, he built the current store behind the old one, demolishing the original structure once the new one was finished.
He and Phillips worked together turning the old house on the farm into Elmo’s Rest, a bed and breakfast. Phillips also chinked two log buildings on the farm.
One construction project Johnson recalls was dismantling a shed, in Bedford, and rebuilding it on the farm, back in the ‘80s.
“We were always scavengers,” Johnson said. “They called me ‘Danny the Dumpster.’”
The had to do this twice. A year after rebuilding it on the farm, a strong wind blew through. It took the roof off Johnson’s barn and flipped the shed upside down. The two men solved the problem by dismantling it again and rebuilding it.
No matter what needed to be done in an orchard, Phillips knew what to do, according to Johnson.
Phillips lived on Johnson’s farm for the last 20 years. When Phillips’ house burned down back in the ‘90s, Johnson put a doublewide on farm property and Phillips lived there rent free.
Johnson said that Phillips beat cancer once, but when it came back his doctor told him that treatment wouldn’t prolong his life — it would just guarantee that his last months would be miserable. Phillips opted to forgo treatment and receive palliative care. Nancy Johnson, who has had her own experience with cancer, took Phillips to his doctor appointments. Danny said that, up until a matter of days before he died, Phillips was still able to do what he wanted.
Johnson said that he and Phillips were very close.
“It was just like losing my brother,” Johnson said of Phillips.